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Weight Stigma: A Nutritionist Opinion On Approaching This With Your Child - By Humaira Azeem BSc MSc

Weight Stigma: A Nutritionist Opinion On Approaching This With Your Child - By Humaira Azeem BSc MSc

Jan 14, 2023Charlotte Thompson
With increasing childhood obesity levels, more and more children are facing the negative effects of weight bias and stigma. Stigma can result from negative personal attitudes and beliefs about obesity and individuals living with obesity. It is frequently held by those with whom the individual interacts throughout childhood, such as peers, educators, friends, family members, media, and healthcare professionals (1).
What childhood obesity stigma can look like:
Weight stigma in a social/school environment:
  • Teachers might have lower standards for students' achievement. Adults may wrongly conclude that children living with obesity have less developed physical, social, and academic skills.
  • Teachers may provide less academic support to children living with obesity.
  • Teasing, name-calling or physical bullying by other students
  • Exclusion from social activities or being ignored by other students
  • The subject of rumours by other students
According to The World Health Organization, bullying that is motivated by appearance is the most common among children and teens with heavier bodies, as they are 63% more likely to experience bullying (2).
Weight stigma & parents/family:
  • The greatest stigma that children with obesity experience come from their parents (3).
  • Children may receive weight-related teasing from their parents or relatives, even if it’s not serious.
  • Parents or other members may encourage dieting.
Weight stigma & Healthcare professionals (HCP’s):
  • Size-inclusive medical equipment may not always be available.
  • HCPs may perceive things worse than they may seem.
  • Blaming parents for their child’s weight.
  • Using inappropriate language and not being mindful, leading to individuals not seeking help.
Weight stigma & media:
  • In most children’s movies, advertisements and TV shows living with obesity are referred to as lazy, unworthy, and lonely.
  • Underrepresentation of people with obesity.
  • The idealisation of certain body types
According to research, three-year-olds are capable of understanding and using stigmatising weight-based stereotypes, such as equating people with more significant body sizes with laziness (4). Children with larger bodies are frequently portrayed in popular media as aggressive, disliked, and unhealthy. There is a significant correlation between greater social media exposure among children and adolescents with increased expressions of weight stigma towards peers living with obesity or overweight (5). Constant exposure to social media leads to body dissatisfaction and increases the chances of engaging in disordered eating.
Tips for parents to minimise social media influences stigma:
  1. Delay giving your child a phone, especially a smartphone as much as possible – if a phone is exposed to them make sure to set strict limits on screen time and what purpose they are using the phone for.
  2. If your child is exposed to Instagram, ensure to limit any sensitive content such as the promotion of restrictive diets and wellness products which use stigmatising imagery.
  3. Encourage them to follow accounts that promote diversity and inclusion and those which are evidence-based.
  4. Bullying based on weight on social media is widespread. Keep an eye on your child's social media use and treat any online abuse against them seriously.
Consequences of weight stigma on children
Obesity stigma faced during childhood can be damaging and can have an impact on how children feel about themselves leading to psychological, physical, and social problems that have an impact on their welfare and overall health. As they grow older, they may engage in unhealthy eating habits such as bingeing or emotional eating which may eventually lead to eating disorders. Moreover, it can lead to low self-esteem, poor body image, low confidence, and anxiety.
According to research weight stigma also affects parents as they express emotions of loneliness, guilt over their child's weight issues, and worry about their child's health. Parents of children with obesity may choose different healthcare choices if they feel stigmatised by medical professionals. Parents who feel their child's doctor is stigmatising them because of their weight reported switching to a different doctor and skipping future appointments (6).
Creating awareness is KEY

It is crucial to understand that diagnosing and treating obesity is not a simple process. Obesity is a complex, multifactorial disease; many factors are involved and focusing just on body weight will lead to many more complex problems. Encouraging “Eat Less and Move More” ideologies create negative stereotypes about overweight individuals by ignoring their emotional health and well-being.

How can parents help reduce weight stigma?

Setting clear boundaries - Weight can be a sensitive topic in today's culture, especially for kids therefore it deserves careful attention to protect your children from having to question their body or weight. Whilst this may seem challenging it is doable by having conversations with teachers, family, and relatives about weight stigma and how it may harm your child. Maintain such boundaries and adopt a zero-tolerance policy for bullying or taunting based on appearance (even if it's jokingly).

Become aware of your own personal attitudes towards weight and the language used in front of children - Children frequently receive unintentional messages from parents regarding their attitudes toward weight. So, ask yourself:

  • Do I have preconceived notions about individuals living with obesity?
  • Am I aware of the different causes of obesity?
  • Am I making negative associations with those living with overweight or obesity?
Be mindful to never blame your child for their weight or the food that they eat.
Prevent making negative comments about your child’s weight as well as yours as this may have a detrimental impact on how your child views their body growing up. Depending on your child’s age, it is important to discuss with them the terminology they feel most at ease with when referring to their weight.

Look out for signs of bullying/teasing - If you think your child is experiencing any form of bullying, look for any changes in their behaviour or mood. Are they eating less, talking less or isolating themselves? Talk to them and offer them support. If needed, reach out to the teachers at school and make them aware of the situation and ask them what they can do to help.

Encourage an open, positive conversation - Talk to your kids about weight if the opportunity arises, and encourage them to express their concerns regarding body image. When kids talk to you about their thoughts regarding weight, pay attention and let them know that the feelings are valid. Let them know how people come in all different shapes & sizes and that your child is loved regardless of their appearance.

Take a food-neutral approach - Focus on overall health rather than appearance or thinness. Teaching them healthy habits at a younger age will be beneficial for life; having balanced meals & snacks, limiting time watching television or playing video games, encouraging spending time outdoors and talking about the importance of sleep and eating nutrient-dense foods.

Be a role model for your children and support them every step of the way to let them know they are not alone. There is so much more to your child’s health than just weight itself; so take action now to prevent your child from being subjected to weight stigma.

About the author:
Humaira Azeem completed her BSc in Food Science & Nutrition and MSc in Obesity & Clinical Nutrition. She is passionate about highlighting the importance of nutrition education and addressing weight stigma and body image related issues in society. She is currently working as clinical co-ordinator and project manager for Nutrition Rocks Limited.

Resources:

Online course:
Raising intuitive eaters by Laura Thomas
https://londoncentreforintuitiveeating.co.uk/courses/raising-intuitive-eaters

1) Haqq, A.M. et al. (2021) “Complexity and stigma of pediatric obesity,” Childhood Obesity, 17(4), pp. 229–240. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1089/chi.2021.0003.

2) Bullying and eating disorders (2018) National Eating Disorders Association. Available at: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/bullying (Accessed: January 11, 2023)

3) Fields, L.C. et al. (2021) “Internalized weight bias, teasing, and self-esteem in children with overweight or obesity,” Childhood Obesity, 17(1), pp. 43–50. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1089/chi.2020.0150.

4) Eisenberg, M.E., Neumark-Sztainer, D. and Story, M. (2003) “Associations of weight-based teasing and emotional well-being among adolescents,” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 157(8), p. 733. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1001/archpedi.157.8.733.

5) Cramer, P. and Steinwert, T. (1998) “Thin is good, fat is bad: How early does it begin?,” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 19(3), pp. 429–451. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/s0193-3973(99)80049-5.

6) Childhood obesity stigma: A call to action (2021) Obesity Canada. Available at: https://obesitycanada.ca/oc-news/childhood-obesity-stigma-a-call-to-action/ (Accessed: January 11, 2023).

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